“You Unlock This Door…”

My teenage summers were spent in front of the TV, hours upon hours, morning following night, my head filling up with old reruns forming a solid base of trivial knowledge that has served me well. My favorite was The Twilight Zone. By the end of the 1970’s I’d seen them all.

Or so I thought. I soon found that there was a missing piece, the fourth season, when Rod Serling’s signature series was stretched into a 60-minute format, much too long to fit into syndication. Over the years I’d seen a couple of the expanded shows, and parts of a few others, but it was only last month that I bought the complete season on DVD and began to watch. Yesterday I saw an episode that, by the close, ended up as Nate’s story.

“Mute” begins in Germany, 1953, when a group of couples sign a pledge committing them, and their children, to communicate  solely via telepathy. After the Serling intro, we are brought to 1963 Pennsylvania, One of the family’s had moved to the States and, tragically, a fire sets their home ablaze. The parents are killed, but their daughter, Ilsa, survives. She can’t speak.

The problems of reaching an uncommunicative child, the frustration, the futility, the dedication, are all covered as the Sheriff and his wife assume care of the orphan. Ilsa’s got it in her – the intelligence, the thoughts – but simply can’t get it out. All of our years with Nate were there, but where the show, written by sci-fi titan Richard Matheson (whose “Born of Man and Woman” was the subject of one of the first Mission of Complex posts), truly hit home was its musings on the merits of conformity.

Ilsa is enrolled in school, much to her displeasure. For good reason; her teacher is a nasty horror. She demands Ilsa talk, starting with saying her name. She can’t and is bombarded with the thoughts of her classmates urging her to speak. Eventually, one of the charter members of the telepathy club come from Germany to reclaim the girl, and, at that very moment she cracks, screaming “My name is Ilsa!” over and over. She can talk, but she’s lost her unique talent.

That’s the trick; how do we get Nate into the world while not hammering out the special qualities he possesses, his individual intelligence, his inherent abilities. It’s an odd thing as a parent to implore some of your kids to be themselves while encouraging another to be like everybody else, but Nate has always needed to find a base, a starting point of “normalcy” from which he can diverge. I’m reminded of jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, who stretched the limits of music into areas quite unexpected to the mainstream listener. The avant-garde players knew the basics tenets of jazz before they leapt into the unknown they explored. That’s how I see Nate’s development. We’ve worked to give him a foundation of socially accepted behaviors simply as a jumping off point to prepare the real world to be receptive to his quirks and skills.

The teacher, in a sinister tone, tells the class they will “work with Ilsa until she’s like everybody else,” and it’s bittersweet when the girl shouts her name at show’s end. She’s lost her telepathic ability but she’s gained a new family.

Conformity has its rewards, and its price.

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About Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.
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